Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever, by Will Hermes

If, like me, you've always harbored a fantasy about living in New York City in the 1970's, then this book is for you.  From the wee small hours of New Year's Day, 1973 to New Year's Eve, 1977, Will Hermes documents the music of the city.  Depending on your reading, you've probably heard some of it before, but it's doubtful that you've heard even most of it.  Yes, the book covers the rising punk scene at Max's Kansas City and CBGB, but also the DJ's spinning at underground gay bars and bath houses giving birth to disco culture, AND the Bronx block parties of DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaata and Grandmaster Flash, AND the salsa scene centered around Fania records, AND the out-there jazz being played in downtown lofts, AND the minimalist composers like Phillip Glass and Steve Reich, AND the rise of Bruce Springsteen.  All this was happening at the same time, and these worlds were occasionally interacting.  Hermes provides a chronological account of all of it, plus the blackout, the crimewaves, the graffiti, the mayoral elections, the Son of Sam murders, the Yankees/Dodgers World Series, and everything else going on in the city.  There's an account of who was playing where each New Year's Eve, what each player experienced during the '77 blackout, how the Bicentennial was celebrated, and any time Dylan, the Stones, Miles or Bob Marley play in town.  And, as with Please Kill Me!, Hermes necessarily takes some time to check in with the parallel punk scene in the U.K. 

The choice of the timeline is a little arbitrary (cutting off at '77 means we miss out on the "No Wave" scene, for instance), and so is the choice of focus.  I would like to have seen, for instance, what was happening in the comedy clubs and at 30 Rock during these times, but hey, that's just my personal interest (I would also have appreciated more on KISS and The Cramps).  You could go pretty much infinitely in any direction with a book like this, so at some point you have to draw a border.

Putting these separate scenes into a chronology helps clarify some of the mythology built up over the years.  I had heard before a sort of hip hop creation myth that called Kool Herc's block parties a reaction to the downtown Manhattan disco scene: kids from the projects who couldn't get into the big discos just built their own.  But the timeline just doesn't add up: Herc was doing parties in 1973, about the same time something that could really be called a disco scene was being created in underground gay bars, years before Saturday Night Fever and Studio 54 brought about the disco scene that this myth seems to describe. 

You might say that this book takes the music scholarship of NYC in the 70's and begins to put it on par with how we view the music of the South.  It's long been understood that blues, gospel, country, jazz and what would become known as rock-n-roll all evolved side-by-side, often interacting, and that all these evolutions were shaped by forces of depression, migration, desegregation and Jim Crow.  Here we see a similar search for how sociological forces effected the development of the music.  My favorite example is the idea that the budding hip hop scene was given a boost by the '77 blackout, when kids across the Bronx looted sound systems and began to teach themselves to DJ.  Another example, which would be worth further research, is how the low rent seemed to foster a creative environment.  New York in the 70's was a crime ridden shithole.  Anyone with the means was getting the fuck out.  That meant that rent was absurdly low.  Several of the jazz players, for example, had rented large lofts where they could live, teach music lessons, and host shows at night.  Sam Rivers' space Studio Rivbea, and Rashid Ali's space, Ali's Alley are two examples.  Rashid Ali had a second floor loft where he lived, then rented out the space below when it was vacated by a local business and turned it into a performance space.  His total monthly rent was $200.  So you can imagine how little the rent for a rat- and roach-infested studio apartment might have been.  And with the cost of living that cheap, it's not hard to devote yourself to creative pursuits, or even to make a living through them.  What's not mentioned is the legality of those loft venues, something I'd be very interested in.  The city was going through bankruptcy.  Was there just not enough resources to go around shutting down illegal venues?  Or were the laws regarding public performance spaces much laxer then?  Not that the lack of enforcement was all sunshine and lollipops, as when a sleazy bathhouse called the Everhard Baths burned down in the summer of '77, killing nine people.  "The owner had been planning to get a sprinkler system installed the week after the fire."  At any rate, that seems like a line of research I'd like to see pursued further.

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